Attending university and pursuing careers in fields such as law and medicine has long been the preserve of a privileged few. Last month, national statistics once again painted a bleak picture of the prospects for students from deprived backgrounds. But new measures by the Scottish government are forcing universities to address the problem.
Just 27.2 per cent of new university students in Scotland in 2010-11 came from socio-economic groups 4-7, the most deprived group. This is significantly below the UK average of 30.6 per cent, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).
"For Scotland's universities to have the worst record in the UK for widening access and for drop-outs is simply not good enough," says Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland.
"Universities are missing out on talented people from the poorest backgrounds. Worse still, people with ability are being excluded from getting an education simply because of their background."
These figures represent a 1.4 per cent improvement on the previous year. All parties accept that lasting change will take time, especially at universities with hundreds of years of history. However, students believe that more could be done and that ancient universities especially are not pulling their weight.
At St Andrews, less than 15 per cent - one in six students - came from the most deprived backgrounds last year, while at Edinburgh it was 17.1 per cent, Glasgow 19.1 per cent and Aberdeen 24.9 per cent.
This is partly due to the type of course they offer, as well as rigorous application processes and high academic demands. But many believe that the ancient universities have an institutional bias towards applicants from independent schools and the most reputable state schools.
Figures are skewed by Scotland's status as a "net-importer of students from the rest of the UK", says Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland. The majority of those tend to "come from wealthier backgrounds and tend to be concentrated in just a handful of institutions.
"This does have a small but significant negative impact on Scotland's apparent performance in widening access measures," he says. "If you look at the socio-economic backgrounds of only Scottish-domiciled students at Scottish universities, the sector's performance as a whole is typically around the UK average."
But even taking this into account, the number of students from less privileged backgrounds is still very low. One reason is the link between deprivation and school attainment, some argue.
Lee Elliot Major, research and policy director of the Sutton Trust, which aims to combat educational inequality, says: "We must not forget the context for the low participation rates at leading universities is the stark attainment gaps that still persist in schools in Scotland, and indeed across the UK.
"Until we address educational inequalities earlier, then universities will remain largely the preserve of those from more privileged backgrounds. Most academic talent is lost long before higher education."
Universities could, however, be doing more to "raise aspirations earlier during school, to work with local schools, and to ensure that sixth- formers with the right grades consider all the university options open to them, including the most prestigious academic courses," he stresses.
"Our research suggests that many state school pupils, through poor advice, rule themselves out of the most prestigious degree courses - even though the evidence shows they prosper once they get in."
Robin Parker agrees there is "no solace for universities, especially our ancient universities, in arguing that our poor widening access rate is down to our school system, or that they have no responsibility here. If that were true, why would Scotland's record be worse than England, Wales or Northern Ireland? There is clearly something peculiar to Scottish universities, not our schools."
Universities are making some headway in meeting their responsibilities in this area. Many have introduced schemes where children are given some university experience regularly from a young age, as well as student mentoring schemes for secondary pupils and summer schools (see panel, page 15).
Their premise is that widening access is not just about the point of departure from school; it requires a cultural change, where young people from an early age see university entrance as a realistic, achievable goal.
Some also run specialist events where pupils are introduced to a specific profession, such as "So you want to be a doctor", a UK-wide programme.
"Unlike other universities, St Andrews has no large urban hinterland from which to recruit and the challenge for us is in developing innovative new outreach projects to attract and retain the brightest minds, regardless of social circumstance or background," says a spokesman.
The University of Aberdeen runs an "Aim 4 Uni" scheme, which combines on- campus activities and workshops in schools with an Easter revision school to raise aspirations and attainment at local "low-progression" schools. Meanwhile, S6 Enhancement focuses on supporting high-achieving students through their Advanced Higher study.
The University of Glasgow's Top-Up Programme, which has run for more than 10 years, prepares senior pupils for university study and is part of the West of Scotland Schools for Higher Education Programme, funded by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).
A number of universities run early engagement programmes with local primary schools, while Glasgow Caledonian University starts its involvement with prospective students even earlier. The Caledonian Club works with nurseries and primary and secondary schools in some of the city's poorest areas.
Children, their parents and teachers are invited on to campus, where they participate in special classes and attend taster sessions in science, IT, design, construction and nutrition. Mentors then visit the nurseries and children can continue to be involved with the club throughout primary and secondary.
Some of the programmes have proved highly successful for those who attended. Twenty-year-old Scott James, a former pupil at Deans Community High in Livingston, is now a third-year medical student at the University of Edinburgh. He took part in its widening access programme towards the end of his school career.
"The school last had someone do medicine three years before me, and I was the only one from my year considering it, so it was good to actually be able to talk to other students who wanted to go and do it," he says.
But the universities will need to up their game. Michael Russell has made widening access a priority, and an integral part of his post-16 reform plans.
When he announced a significant increase in funding to universities for next year, he left them in no doubt that there would be conditions attached.
New outcome agreements between the SFC and universities will demand action from the institutions on a range of issues including widening access, or they will risk losing part of their funding.
"Until the outcome agreement has been signed by you, on behalf of your governing body, the SFC will cap the release of the AY 2012-13 main teaching and research funding to your institution at AY 2011-12 levels," a recent SFC circular told university leaders.
The individual agreements will be negotiated locally, and results will be measured over a period of time.
Robin Parker believes these are "absolutely the right way to go" and "balance the national need for action with the need for local flexibility and local circumstances, hopefully leading to steady progress on widening access to university to people from all backgrounds and on reducing drop- outs".
How successful they will be remains to be seen. Students say they will only work if they can be enforced through financial penalties. The universities, however, fear that targets could change the way they run their widening access programmes - moving the focus onto getting young people interested in a specific institution, rather than university in general. They might also hamper cooperation between universities, by creating competition.
There are societal factors too that stop those from less well-off backgrounds even considering university attendance.
A degree still represents a major financial commitment for many, even though there are no tuition fees and financial support is available. It takes them out of the labour market for four years.
Family ambitions and environment also play a role, as do personal goals, says Neil Speirs, widening participation project officer and researcher at the University of Edinburgh.
"If my main aim in life is to have a back garden and some peace and quiet, university access is going to fall by the wayside. There may be so many things in a possible student's life that they never get to the stage where they consider university."
The college route to university
Colleges also have their role to play in widening access to university. They increasingly provide routes into higher education for young people from the poorest backgrounds.
In 2010-11, 23 per cent of students doing higher education courses at college came from the most deprived quintile, compared to one in 10 university students, according to figures from the Scottish Funding Council.
However, the move to university from HND and HNC courses at college happens much more often with Scotland's newer universities than it does with the ancients.
John Spencer, convener of the Principals' Convention, says: "Progress is being made, but much more needs to be done to widen opportunities and find ways of removing barriers to student progression."
Aberdeen College now has an established route into university from each of its HND programmes, and it has links with 10 universities, although most students progress to the local Robert Gordon or Aberdeen universities.
Most HND students are able to go straight into third year, while HNC students tend to articulate into the second year of a degree course.
Students can, therefore, come to the college, complete a non-advanced course, progress on to an HND, and two years later arrive in the third year of a university degree, explains college principal Rob Wallen.
"What that is doing is providing a real route for wider access for people who did not achieve at school. It is a massive driver for social inclusion," he adds.
Other students may choose the route of going through college before university, in the hope that it makes them more employable.
The college and its partner universities have now reached a position where "it is accepted that an HND covers an equivalent range and depth of study as the first two years of a degree programme," says Mr Wallen.
"That has been built up over the years by collaboration, by looking at the HND and the degree programme and making sure they are a close fit."
Both Aberdeen and Robert Gordon universities have been "very willing" to work with the college on proper articulation routes.
But colleges in some areas of Scotland have not been able to establish similar close relationships with their local universities, he acknowledges.
"Ancient universities are different in some respects. They have traditions that go back, and they perhaps recruit in slightly different ways from the post-92 universities," he adds.
"Our experience with the University of Aberdeen now is that it is very open, and very willing to address the issue of articulation, and that is led from the top."
`It reassured us that you don't have to be really rich and posh'
Govan High in Glasgow does not have a tradition of sending high numbers of pupils to university, never mind Oxbridge. In 2009-10, only 5 per cent - four - of its leavers progressed directly to higher education; the equivalent Glasgow figure was 27 per cent and for Scotland, 36 per cent.
Last year, however, the school's principal teacher of pastoral care, Graham Robertson, initiated the graduate programme for 14 of the most promising S2 pupils. Through it, they became the first group in Scotland - and one of the youngest in the UK - to take part in a widening access programme run by the University of Cambridge. This year, the "graduates", now in S3, are fundraising to get on to a similar programme at Harvard University in the US.
Mr Robertson had been frustrated by the low uptake of further or higher education options, but knew the school had a cohort of really keen pupils in S2.
"I come from one of the poorest areas in Paisley and was one of the first in my family to go to university. My parents always said to me, `when you go to university .' but that is language our kids don't have," he says.
"Initially, it was about raising aspirations and hopes and equipping the kids with the language that university was an option for them."
Focus West, the widening access organisation that covers the west of Scotland, was already a partner.
The school selected 14 potential "graduates". First it asked for volunteers, then the faculty heads for English and maths were asked to nominate their high-flyers and, finally, the entire staff was asked for nominees.
As an introduction, the pupils took part in the Pacific Institute's PX2 motivational programme, designed to build confidence and encourage positive thinking.
They were then split into two teams, Apprentice-style, to build a team ethos, and given three tasks:
- Who works here? Teams had to interview a range of staff in the school to find out about their jobs, qualifications, why they did their jobs, the skills required, and the good and bad aspects.
- Your perfect job. Each pupil had to interview someone from the other team about what they thought of school and their career aspirations.
- Higher education - what's it really like? A session based in Glasgow Caledonian University and run in partnership with Focus West asked them to plan and budget for a visit to the university, and research what was involved in higher education. This included presentation and discussion of the "personal learning journey" of a lecturer who was a former pupil at Govan High.
All three tasks required the pupils to present their findings to a review panel, which then questioned them and rated their responses. At the end, the "winning team" was announced and pupils who had excelled in particular tasks were identified. But then it was announced that all 14 - not just the winning team - had won a three-day trip to Cambridge.
The pupils stayed at Selwyn College, where they slept in student quarters, met university staff and toured the premises. The school later received a letter saying they were the best behaved group they had ever had.
"It reassured us that you don't have to be really rich and posh to go there - as long as you show interest in your subject," says one pupil, Jennifer Baird.
The experience created a cohesive, ambitious group, says Mr Robertson. They now meet once a week with a guidance teacher who tracks their progress and they have volunteered to mentor the next group. Instead of hiding their academic ability from their peers, they seem to have embraced the idea of "geek chic", he adds.
Ross Woods wants to study economics at the University of Glasgow. "The programme has made us a lot more confident in our abilities to get to university. I just thought before, university, that's impossible. My dad says that one of his big regrets is not going to university; he could have done so much more," he says.
Jennifer Baird wants to do music or art at Cambridge or Harvard: "I hate accepting less than an A these days," she says.
At the start-up stage, there was debate about whether S2 pupils would be too young, says Mr Robertson. "Looking back, the decision to take a chance in this younger age cohort was correct.
"It has reinforced or created a desire among many of them to now target progression to HE at this early stage. As a consequence, the school has a minimum of three further years to nurture and support the aspirations developed."
Original headline: Opening doors: the battle to widen university access